Find solutions by anticipating negative outcomes
It is too late to equip the mind for the endurance of dangers after the dangers have come.
A few years ago, I was a contracted editor for a global consulting firm. I was in a temp-to-hire role, having the time of my professional life. I was gaining great, real-world experience while working with some heavy hitters in the management consulting space.
Then came the news that we were being acquired.
I panicked. I knew my position as a contractor was precarious, and I couldn’t help but anxiously ruminate about the possibility of losing my job.
So, I called my brother for advice.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Assume you’ve lost your job already, and start looking,” he replied.
For some reason, that simple logic resolved my anxiety and strengthened my resolve. I focused only on what was in my control, anticipated the least-preferred outcome, and acted accordingly.
When my contract ended and I was out of a job, I was grateful that I had already begun my job search and had some solid leads before the worst had happened.
The advice my brother gave me has a name in ancient Stoic philosophy: premeditatio malorum, or negative visualization.
Let’s explore how negative visualization can help you develop resilience in the face of setbacks at work.
To understand why negative visualization works, take a lesson from modern psychology research. Without getting into the details—you can read more here—modern psychologists have found an effect that has been replicated in many psychological experiments called the Anchor Effect.
We tend to base value judgments on objects or circumstances on our previous experiences. For example, it’s the reason a difficult circumstance seems not so difficult when you’ve been through worse circumstances before.
The ancient Stoic philosophers understood this effect well.
Expect the worst
In his best-selling book The Stoic Challenge, modern philosopher William Irvine expounds:
The ancient Stoic philosophers…employed the anchoring phenomenon not to sell… but to have a more fulfilling life. In particular, they would make a point of imagining ways in which their lives could be worse.
But wait, wouldn’t that just make you more anxious? This could be true for people with diagnosable anxiety disorders, so this technique might not work for everyone.
However, Irvine continues with another important caveat:
[N]egative visualization is one of the most remarkable psychological instruments in the Stoic tool kit. It is important to realize that in advising us to negatively visualize, the Stoics weren’t advocating that we dwell on how things could be worse; that would indeed be a recipe for misery. Instead, what we should do is periodically have flickering thoughts about how our lives and circumstances could be worse.
When you imagine the setbacks you might encounter, you’re better equipped to get ahead of them and wisely handle them. You will not only experience increased gratitude but also be better prepared to handle that missed deadline, those missed KPIs, or that important client meeting. This effect comes from a combination of your deliberate practice of negative visualization (i.e., premeditation malorum) and the involuntary practice your brain has of anchoring.
One of the original Stoics, Seneca, put it simply:
The wise person gets used to future evils: what other men make bearable by long endurance, he makes bearable by long reflection. We sometimes hear the inexperienced say, “I didn’t know this was in store for me.” The wise person knows that everything is in store for him. Whatever happens, he says, “I knew.”
To conclude, keep this one thing in mind: when you allow yourself to periodically, deliberately anticipate future setbacks and adversities, you’re doing yourself a favor. You’re increasing your ability to bounce back when you simulate, imagine, and prepare.
Projects might experience “scope creep.” Cyberattacks could happen. Deadlines sometimes pile up on top of each other. Assume they will, and nothing will surprise you. Ignore these possibilities, and you could experience more job stress than you bargained for.